Workplace Wisdom

The Bully Pulpit, Part II: How the Bully Operates at Work

Workplace bullies may not realize that other people think of them that way. They tend to think they’re just trying to get business results that they deem reasonable, important, or necessary. Their sense of “getting the job done” prompts them to protect their authority or turf from the “threat” that they believe is posed by their “victims.” The bully’s fear that victims might “make trouble” is usually based on victims having particular talents, strengths, position-knowledge, intellect, or some other appealing traits.

There is no bullying in a relationship of equals, even though there may be occasional jockeying for power, conflict, debate, situational one-upmanship, etc. A non-bully who acts in a bullying way feels guilty afterward and typically forswears the manipulativeness of the technique.

Bullying Is a Persistent Problem

Bullying is usually repetitive; it’s never a one-shot deal, so if it’s happening it’s probably going to continue until some outside force stops it. One way the bully rules through fear is by communicating the sense — implicitly or explicitly — that circumstances will always be this way (or could get worse) and that victims will never escape the bully’s reach (or may end up even more under the bully’s control). Bullying is meant to create and sustain an imbalance of power in which the bully always has the upper hand, and victims who attempt self-assertion are stopped — cold — in their tracks.

Some bullies operate in secret and are as nice as pie when anyone else is around. One of the weapons of this kind of bully is a lack of predictability, so victims dread being alone with them. Other bullies relish the public putdown: The bullying behavior serves as a “lesson” to observers about how they will be treated if they don’t comply. Then, because silence condones behavior, the public airing without consequences becomes a kind of proof that bullying will be tolerated — and may even be considered an effective management technique.

How a Bully Victimizes Colleagues

The bully’s victim can be a new employee or a longstanding, tenured, “go-to” guy or gal. Unlike the stereotypical kid sitting alone in the schoolyard or on the school bus that everyone automatically picks on, workplace victims may have been completely successful at work in the past, and are often in a state of complete disbelief when someone starts to pick on them.

This disbelief, in addition to the fear of appearing weak, incompetent, or unprofessional, can prevent even previously outspoken employees from speaking up in their own defense — despite the fact that these otherwise successful people wouldn’t hesitate to stand up for someone else undergoing the same difficulties.

The risk of victims speaking up for themselves is, of course, that the bully could turn the screws a rotation tighter and become more forceful or more public in trying to undercut the victims’ dignity or autonomy — in ways that cause them to lose face further in front of themselves and others.

Why Victims Stay Silent

How do bullies get away with such public displays? Their behavior triggers an embarrassment-and-disgust response, as well as fear for their own situation in the people who are present during the bullying encounter. Embarrassment in front of others, the fear of looking stupid, and the sense of shame that the bully’s behavior engenders, all create an extra enforcement mechanism that holds the victim locked in place.

Bullying always implies that the victim has no choice or autonomy, and that nothing can be done to change the situation. One workplace bully I worked with was fond of proclaiming, “I am the court of last resort.”

Because we live in a time when employment is already insecure due to purely structural or economic factors, an employee who’s being bullied can be caught in a horrible double-bind. The bully’s claim is, in effect, “I can make things worse for you or make you feel worse — anytime I choose — and with impunity, so if you try to stick up for yourself, you’ll face the possibility of termination.”

In Part III, we’ll examine a panoply of bullying types and techniques. You may be surprised at some of the behaviors that can be used to intimidate others.

Onward and upward,

LK

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